How to Deal With Panic Attacks While Sleeping
It’s the middle of the night; you wake up in a darkened bedroom, and you are gasping for breath. Your chest feels tight, perhaps there’s even a little pain. You fear you’re having a heart attack and that you’re about to die. Or maybe, you wake up late at night with an urgent need to urinate. Just as you finish relieving yourself, your legs turn into limp noodles, you feel woozy, and you collapse on the bathroom floor. You haven’t a clue what’s wrong, but it scares the daylights out of you. You’re conscious, but you can’t make your lower body function.
These are by no means trivial situations. You are experiencing a physical as well as a psychological reaction that could be the sign of some serious medical emergency. If, though, you’re a relatively healthy person, you could be experiencing what some 16 million Americans each year experience: a panic attack. Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear or anxiety, and they have both a biological and a psychological aspect to them.
While panic attacks can occur at any place, any time, nocturnal panic attacks are perhaps the most frightening. You are most likely alone and in the dark, a set of circumstances that can amplify feelings of anxiety geometrically. Nocturnal attacks strike with no apparent trigger and can wake you up from a sound sleep Half of the people who experience panic attacks also have nocturnal attacks, but only ten percent of all panic attacks take place at night. The symptoms are essentially the same as those of daytime panic attacks, but it is difficult to calm down and go back to sleep afterwards. Being deprived of sufficient sleep can lead to other medical conditions.
It’s not known exactly what causes nocturnal panic attacks, but some of the basic causative factors might be genetics, stress, or changes in the way your brain functions. Sleep-related conditions such as apnea can also trigger a panic reaction if they wake you. In the second situation mentioned above, becoming faint after urination, it’s often lack of understanding of what’s happening that triggers a panic attack. This condition, a form of syncope or fainting, occurs usually when you are sitting or standing. Too rapid urination can scramble the brain’s signals to the lower extremities, causing them not to function. Knowing this, and knowing that simply lying down for a while will cause it to go away can mitigate the fear that something really dreadful is happening to you. You can also become dizzy or faint if you move to a sitting or standing position from a lying position too rapidly, caused by the sudden flow of blood from the brain. Again, maintaining calm and breathing slowly and deeply will help ease the physical symptoms until things return to normal.
Another causative factor in nocturnal panic attacks is, in fact, probably the anxiety over having one. Sleep studies have shown that nocturnal panic attacks are not caused by dreams or nightmares. The majority take place during the early phase of sleep rather than the REM phases which are associated with dreaming. This supports the hypothesis that these attacks are probably triggered by anxieties we take to sleep with us.
Preventing Nocturnal Panic Attacks
There are a number of ways you can reduce the risk of or even prevent nocturnal panic attacks.
Exercise before sleep: Light exercise a couple of hours before bedtime helps to relax both body and mind and relieves you of many of the day’s stresses which could act as triggers for panic attacks. While routine physical exercise can have you keyed up and unable to sleep if done just before retiring, the exception is sexual intercourse. This is one exercise that upon completion, leaves your body and mind in a completely relaxed condition and can help you fall asleep quickly.
Relax your mind before sleep: Reading a good book or listening to soft music before bedtime can help relax your mind in preparation for a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep. If you must watch TV just before going to bed, avoid programs that raise anxiety levels, like horror movies and the like.
Don’t eat bedtime snacks: Eating just before going to bed, in addition to increasing the risk of gastric ailments like acid reflux, makes it harder for the body and mind to achieve the relaxed state necessary for sound sleep.
Limit or avoid alcohol or caffeine intake before bedtime: Any substance that causes hyperactivity or depression should be avoided just before retiring for the evening. A nice mild herbal tea should be substituted for that cocktail or cup of coffee instead.
Don’t try to force yourself to go to sleep: Worrying about being able to fall asleep is the best way to ensure you lie awake, or when you do fall asleep, it will be uncomfortable sleep interrupted with frequent waking. Lie back and let your mind wander to a place that you associate with pleasant memories. Try to think of anything but sleep, and let sleep come naturally. The best, most restful sleep is when you don’t remember falling asleep. You lie down, relax, and the next thing you know, it’s morning and you’re waking up.
Know your body’s signals: Our body is constantly sending signals informing us of ongoing or impending conditions. We just have to learn to heed them. If you’re having evening cocktails, for instance, pay close attention; your body will tell you when you’re approaching the limit. If you want to have a good night’s sleep, listen and obey.